Black Americans are more downbeat about black progress today than at any time since the early 1980s. Asked to compare the situation of blacks today with their situation five years ago, just 20% of African American respondents say that blacks are better off now; 29% say they are worse off, and about half (49%) say the situation is unchanged. The proportion saying blacks are better off has not been as low as 20% since 1983, at the end of a serious economic recession during the first presidential term of Ronald Reagan.
Blacks are somewhat less negative when their current situation is compared with that of a decade ago. Nearly one-in-three (31%) say that blacks are better off now than they were 10 years ago, while about one-fifth (22%) say they are worse off now.
However, the views of whites on these questions are very different. Whites are nearly twice as likely to say the situation of blacks has improved. In the comparison with five years ago, 37% of whites (and only 20% of blacks) think blacks are better off. With respect to change over the last 10 years, a majority of whites (55%) say things are better for blacks, while only 31% of African American respondents agree.
The five-year comparison has been probed many times over the past 40 years. In 1969, a few years after landmark civil rights legislation on voting, housing, public accommodations and schools, 70% of blacks said that the situation of blacks was better than it had been five years earlier. But this positive view faded over time. By 1981, just 30% of blacks said their situation was better than five years earlier; in 1986 the number was 34%. In the 1990s, this positive view had sunk to 24% (in 1997) but rallied to 32% in 1999. Meantime, the number of blacks saying that the situation of blacks is worse than five years earlier had declined to just 13% in the 1999 survey. But is now back up to 29%.
White optimism about the state of black progress has also declined over time, but it hasn't fallen as low as it has among blacks. Whites were not asked the five-year comparison question about blacks until 1984, when 68% of whites — about the same percentage as blacks in 1969 — said blacks were better off. Whites became less sanguine over the next several years but remained more positive about the change in black circumstances than did blacks themselves. In 1986, 53% of whites said blacks were better off, and this number fell as low as 43% in 1997, but rose to 49% in 1999, at the peak of the late 1990's economic boom. It now stands at 37%.